Amazing Atheists: Ajita Kesakambali (6th century BCE)

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 13, 2008 in Amazing Atheists

Ancient Pali script, the language of Ajita Kesakambali.

Ancient Pali script, the language of Ajita Kesakambali.

Living about the time of the founders of Buddhism and Jainism, Ajita Kesakambali was one of the earliest people in recorded history to deny the existence of gods, spirits, souls, a non-material realm, the afterlife, reincarnation, absolute moral values, and karma. He was a major influence on the Indian school of philosophy known as Carvaka.

Though he denied the existence of absolute morals, he does not seem to have abused people or even sought his own pleasure, for he was an ascetic: he chose to be abstinent from “worldly pleasures” like alcohol and sex.

I often wonder what it must have been like to be just about the only person on the planet who didn’t buy into superstitious nonsense. Ajita must have felt terribly alone. What did he think of his fellow human beings? What did he try to do with his life?

We will never know the details of his life and philosophy. He may have been a skilled debater because he was known as “the unconquered.” Also, he seems to have had contempt for his colleagues:

Ideas like generosity are the concepts of a stupid person. He who speaks of their existence, his words are empty and confused; a cry of desperation.1

Sounds like Pat Condell to me!

If you think it’s difficult to “come out” as a materialist or an atheist today, imagine what it must have been like in the 6th century BCE! If nothing else, Ajita was surely a courageous man.

  1. See Ethics in Early Buddhism, pgs. 16-18. []

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kasyapa November 28, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Interesting !!!

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Circe February 5, 2011 at 1:29 am

Technically, the founder of Jainism was an atheist too, though he probably did believe in other superstitious nonsense. The founder of Buddhism said he was not concerned with the question of existence of god(s).

Also, Atheism/agnosticism in India has rather deep roots. There are two “Creation Hymns” in the Rigveda, and one of them(the Nasadiya Sukta) declares about the question of the origin of the world: “Only It(God) knows, or perhaps he knows it not”. Now that is much to the annoyance of some of the more religious minded folks who tend to take the Rigveda as Word given by god.

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